On the day we took the Li River cruise, we had another afternoon free from scheduled activities. My husband and I thought we’d take a walk with the children.
Throughout the tour we had been efficiently chauffeured between designated hotels and tourist sites but, this time, we wanted to get a real feel of Chinese sidewalks. We also looked forward to the physical exercise to offset the abundant meals we had been enjoying at nearly every stop.
We began by walking the few blocks between our hotel and the ample bridge that spanned one of the rivers winding through the city of Guilin. It was the end of a working day; the hot summer afternoon was giving way to a warm evening. As we approached the bridge, the sidewalks became busier.
Vendors offered a diversity of produce displayed on pieces of cloth spread out on the pavement or in wooden containers. Most of the vegetables and fruit on sale looked familiar, but they were of enormous proportions. Were they of an entirely different variety from the ones back home? Did their growers simply use special fertilizer? Or could their gigantic size be the result of the region’s soil helped along by the abundance of water? Perhaps, all three, I thought with a shrug, not bothering to ask.
Once we got to the bridge, the sidewalk vendors disappeared—but for two stationed near the stairs that led from the top of the bridge to the riverfront below. They sold a very exotic looking kind of cake: pink, yellow, red, and rich with fruit and nuts. Each vendor had one big cake sitting in a huge basket, and they would sell slices of it to passersby.
Walking the length of the bridge was very pleasant. The bustle of city faded away and we could enjoy the clear water flowing beneath us. At one point on the riverfront, not too far away, there was a public beach, from which a throng of people in bathing suits descended toward the river to play and swim. I thought it was wonderful to have such a clean river flowing through one’s city, especially if the summers were always this hot.
Having crossed the bridge, we kept walking, trying to avoid the avenues with the most traffic. Chinese traffic is unnerving. Vans, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians use streets and sidewalks seemingly oblivious to one another, following traffic rules that are a mystery to the uninitiated. So we kept to the quieter streets— some exclusively pedestrian—and we peered into shop windows until nightfall.
By that time we were hungry, curious, and daring enough to decide to eat in a nearby restaurant instead of walking all the way back to the hotel for the same buffet dinner we had already tasted the night before. None of the signs around us were in a language we could understand, so we picked a restaurant solely on the basis of its looks and entered.
After some animated signing with the friendly waiters to communicate that we wanted fish and vegetables, we sat down to a savory meal. To this day I really could not say what we ate exactly, but we enjoyed everything down to the last morsel.
The walk back to the hotel from the restaurant did not seem that long, now that we had assuaged our hunger and the evening had become refreshingly cool. The lights were on making the bridge glow brightly in blue, green, and orange, like a gigantic spaceship hovering over the glistening river.
The children had already begun to yawn and balked at having to walk all the way back to the hotel. Our littlest one, age four, had to be carried. The eldest had to make do with being half-carried, half-tugged back through the streets and the bridge, and the now empty sidewalks.
That night, our heads filled with images of the enchanting Li River and the stroll through Guilin, our bellies full of delicious food, limbs well exercised from the walk, we all fell into a deep sleep.
Chinese Rizal Shrine
The last leg of the trip was far away from the well trodden tourist circuit: the southeastern coastal province of Fujian. This was the main purpose behind our voyage to China; that is, to visit Li Sha Square, which was recently built as a tribute to José Rizal’s Chinese ascendancy. My father thought it important for me to make this visit, being a descendant of the National Hero’s sister Maria on my mother’s side.
We had only a vague idea of where our destination was located. Fortunately, the young guide who met us at the Xia’men airport was very persevering, and eventually found out exactly how to get there.
It was a small urban park in the outskirts of town. It had taken us quite a while to get there, so it was with no small amount of relief that we finally got out of the van and set foot on the Square.
Rizal’s statue was set at a moderate height. It was framed by an angular column and low walls engraved with some bilingual text explaining the historic significance of his life and death. Surrounding the monument were several clusters of young trees ringed by small gardens of flowers.
Racing a Typhoon
As I stood there I felt a mix of emotions. I felt proud to be a Filipino, but I also wondered what Rizal would have said about all of it. I was grateful to my father for his insistence that we journey all the way to this place, but I felt an adrenalin rush as the wind blew stronger and rain pelted my clothes, which already stuck coldly to my body. How were we to know that a typhoon would visit this particular part of China along with us?
Typhoon Kaemi had been revving up over the Pacific Ocean all morning. It was soon expected to hit land somewhere really close. It was going to be a race to the shrine of the family from which José Rizal’s ascendancy could be traced—another must-see spot, according to my father.
The Li Sha Square gardener (who was packing his tools and getting ready to leave when we arrived) knew of the shrine and was going to guide us there. It happened to be the shrine of his family!
There wasn’t much to behold, what with the gale and rain hammering us from all sides—and the sad fact that the shrine was ravaged by fire some years before. But this wasn’t going to deter people determined to honor the ancestors. The gardener-turned-distant-relative helped us acquire several packets of yellow paper money, painted in red and gold characters, that is the Chinese custom to burn when honoring the dead. I also brought my spiritual heritage from the other side of the Pacific and offered copal incense, tobacco, and chocolate in the tradition of the Mexica (Aztec) culture.
After all our offerings were consumed by fire or placed with reverence upon the altar, we thanked and said goodbye to the keeper of the Square. We hopped on the van and rushed to the hotel, speeding past police cars with loudspeakers from which issued urgent advisories that everyone was to keep indoors until the typhoon passed.
From the window of our hotel room I looked out onto the rain-drenched city. Xia’men looked superbly modern, steel, concrete, and glass a-sparkle. But I was still thinking about the fields that had been and the line of fishing villages that crowded the coastline we passed. From this land of farmers and fishermen, across the centuries, waves of people set sail in search of a new home and a more secure, prosperous future. Some settled in what is now the Republic of the Philippines, a country that in turn has produced waves of migration to many other places.
I myself am one such migrant—an Asian living in a continent across the Pacific, on the other side of the world. If more of us made ourselves aware of the threads that link our present bodies to distant geographies and almost-forgotten pasts, perhaps we would feel more like one family on our only, unique planet.
Print ed: 10/09